As a primary market, the stock market allows companies to issue and sell their shares to the common public for the first time through the process of initial public offerings (IPO). This activity helps companies raise necessary capital from investors. It essentially means that a company divides itself into a number of shares (say, 20 million shares) and sells a part of those shares (say, 5 million shares) to common public at a price (say, $10 per share).
A local financial regulator or competent monetary authority or institute is assigned the task of regulating the stock market of a country. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is the regulatory body charged with overseeing the U.S. stock markets. The SEC is a federal agency that works independently of the government and political pressure. The mission of the SEC is stated as: "to protect investors, maintain fair, orderly, and efficient markets, and facilitate capital formation."
A stock market is a similar designated market for trading various kinds of securities in a controlled, secure and managed the environment. Since the stock market brings together hundreds of thousands of market participants who wish to buy and sell shares, it ensures fair pricing practices and transparency in transactions. While earlier stock markets used to issue and deal in paper-based physical share certificates, the modern day computer-aided stock markets operate electronically.
The first stock market in the world was the London stock exchange. It was started in a coffeehouse, where traders used to meet to exchange shares, in 1773. The first stock exchange in the United States of America was started in Philadelphia in 1790. The Buttonwood agreement, so named because it was signed under a buttonwood tree, marked the beginnings of New York's Wall Street in 1792. The agreement was signed by 24 traders and was the first American organization of its kind to trade in securities. The traders renamed their venture as New York Stock and Exchange Board in 1817.
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How much money do I need to start investing in stocks? The amount of money you need to buy an individual stock depends on how expensive the shares are. (Share prices can range from just a few dollars to a few thousand dollars.) If you want mutual funds and have a small budget, an exchange-traded fund (ETF) may be your best bet. Mutual funds often have minimums of $1,000 or more, but ETFs trade like a stock, which means you purchase them for a share price — in some cases, less than $100).
Find a good online stock broker and open an account. Become familiarized with the layout and to take advantage of the free trading tools and research offered to clients only. Some brokers offer virtual trading which is beneficial because you can trade with play money (see #9 below). A great tool for comparing online brokers can be found at StockBrokers.com.
Forums can be another source for question and answer. Two recommendations include Elite Trader and Trade2Win. Just be careful of who you listen to. The vast majority of participants are not professional traders, let alone profitable traders. Heed advice from forums with a heavy dose of salt and do not, under any circumstance, follow trade recommendations.